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Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About Designer Babies

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File 20181206 128196 1vx10ln.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Babies to order. Andrew crotty/Shutterstock.com

When Adam Nash was still an embryo, living in a dish in the lab, scientists tested his DNA to make sure it was free of Fanconi anemia, the rare inherited blood disease from which his sister Molly suffered. They also checked his DNA for a marker that would reveal whether he shared the same tissue type. Molly needed a donor match for stem cell therapy, and her parents were determined to find one. Adam was conceived so the stem cells in his umbilical cord could be the lifesaving treatment for his sister.

Adam Nash is considered to be the first designer baby, born in 2000 using in vitro fertilizaton with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a technique used to choose desired characteristics. The media covered the story with empathy for the parents’ motives but not without reminding the reader that “eye color, athletic ability, beauty, intelligence, height, stopping a propensity towards obesity, guaranteeing freedom from certain mental and physical illnesses, all of these could in the future be available to parents deciding to have a designer baby.

The designer babies have thus been called the “future-we-should-not-want” for each new reproductive technology or intervention. But the babies never came and are nowhere close. I am not surprised.

I study the prediction of complex diseases and human traits that result from interactions between multiple genes and lifestyle factors. This research shows that geneticists cannot read the genetic code and know who will be above average in intelligence and athleticism. Such traits and diseases that result from multiple genes and lifestyle factors cannot be predicted using just DNA, and cannot be designed. Not now. And very unlikely ever.

Designer Babies Are Next

The inevitable rise of designer babies was proclaimed in 1978 after the birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, as the next step toward “a brave world where parents can select their child’s gender and traits.” The same situation occurred in 1994 when a 59-year-old British woman stretched the limits of nature by giving birth to twins using donated eggs that were implanted in her womb at a fertility clinic in Italy.

The response was the same in 1999, when a fertility clinic in Fairfax, Virginia, offered sex selection of embryos to screen against diseases that only happen in boys. In 2013, when 23andMe was granted a patent for a tool that predicts the likelihood of traits in babies based on DNA of two parents, the question of patenting designer babies was raised. In 2016, when the U.K. permitted a woman to donate her healthy mitochondria to a couple using IVF to conceive a child, raising the number of parents to three, fears of unnatural children rose again. Last month, when Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey company, announced its DNA screening panel for embryos would also assess the risk for complex diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease that are caused by multiple genes, fears of engineering babies with high IQ or athletic prowess emerged.

The same issues arose on Nov. 26 when He Jiankui reported at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong that he had successfully edited the DNA of twin baby girls born last month.

The designer baby doom scenarios have not evolved with the technology. It’s been the same story for decades. It’s the same “desirable” traits and the same assumption that parents want to select these traits if technology allowed. But no one seems to be questioning whether these traits are solely a product of our genes such that they can be selected or edited in embryos.

Wondering about designer babies was understandable in the early days, but repetition of these supposed fears now suggests lack of understanding of how DNA, and the genes they encode, work.

Picking the trait and writing the genetic code is a scenario that has been forecast since the birth of the first test tube baby.
olga boat/Shutterstock.com

Designing Favorable Traits Isn’t Easy

Although there are exceptions, DNA generally differs between people in two ways: There are DNA mutations and DNA variations.

Mutations cause rare diseases like Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis, which are caused by a single gene. Mutations in the BRCA genes substantially increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Selecting embryos that do not have these mutations removes the entire or main cause of disease – women who don’t have BRCA mutations can still develop breast cancer through other causes, like all women.

Variations are changes in the genetic code that are more common than mutations and associated with common traits and diseases. DNA variants increase the likelihood that you may have a trait or develop a disease but do not determine or cause it. Association means that in several large study populations, a DNA variant was more frequent among people with the trait than those without, often only slightly more frequent.

These variants don’t determine a trait, but increase its likelihood by interacting with other DNA variants and nongenetic influences such as upbringing, lifestyle and environment. To design such traits in embryos would require multiple DNA changes in multiple genes and orchestrating or controlling relevant environment and lifestyle influences too.

Let’s compare it to driving a car. DNA mutations are like the flat tires and the failing brakes: technical problems that make driving problematic, no matter where you drive. DNA variations are like the color and the type of car, or other features of the car that may affect the driving experience and even might create problems over time. For example, a convertible is a delight when driving on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard on a breezy summer evening, but cruel when crossing a high mountain pass in midwinter. Whether features of the car are an asset or a liability depends on the context and that context might change — they are never ideal all the time.

Another Hurdle

The gene that encodes red hair also raises the risk of skin cancer.
Andreshkova Nastya/Shutterstock.com

Most DNA mutations do nothing else other than cause the disease, but DNA variations may play a role in many diseases and traits. Take variations in the MC1R “red hair” gene, which not only increases the chance that your child will have red hair, but also increases their risk of skin cancer. Or variations in the OCA2 and HERC2 “eye color” genes that are also associated with the risk of various cancers, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. To be sure, these are statistical associations, reported in the scientific literature, some may be confirmed; others may not. But the message is clear: Editing DNA variations for “desirable” traits may have adverse consequences, including many that scientists don’t know about yet.

We can see this in the analysis of He Jiankui’s gene-edited babies. By trying to make the babies resistant to HIV, He might have greatly increased susceptibility to infections by West Nile virus or influenza.

To be sure, even though complex traits such as intelligence, athletics and musicality cannot be selected or designed, there will be opportunists who will try to offer these traits, even if totally premature and unsupported by science. Like Stephen Hsu, the co-founder of Genomic Prediction who said about his offer to test embryos for polygenic risk, the risk of a disease based on multiple genes, “I think people are going to demand that. If we don’t do it, some other company will.” And also He said: “There will be someone, somewhere, who is doing this. If it’s not me, it’s someone else.” People need to be protected against this irresponsible and unethical use of DNA testing and editing.

Science brought incredible progress in reproductive technology, but didn’t bring designer babies one step closer. The creation of designer babies is not limited by technology, but by biology: The origins of common traits and diseases are too complex and intertwined to modify the DNA without introducing unwanted effects.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ecology

Yukon and Northern BC First Nations tackle climate change using Indigenous knowledge and science

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YUKON, June 18, 2021 /CNW/ – The Government of Canada is working together in partnership with Indigenous and Northern communities in finding solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the North.

Today, Minister of Northern Affairs, Daniel Vandal, along with Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages (Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency), Larry Bagnell, highlighted progress on three unique, Indigenous-led projects that are helping communities in Yukon and Northern British Columbia adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

The Minister and Parliamentary Secretary met virtually with Carcross/Tagish First Nation (C/TFN) to learn about their community-led climate change monitoring program. C/TFN has partnered with Tsay Keh Dene Nation (TKDN) and Chu Cho Environmental of Prince George, British Columbia, to build a community-led monitoring project that examines environmental data and Indigenous knowledge to create a holistic picture of how the climate is changing across C/TFN and TKDN traditional territories. The project combines tracking of current and historical climate trends with knowledge shared by Elders while also providing opportunities for youth mentorship and climate change awareness.

The Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) is also leading a unique project to assess the impacts of climate change within their traditional territory. Climate change is causing many of the culturally significant ice patches to melt, exposing organic artifacts to oxygen and leading to rapid deterioration. The TRTFN ice patch mapping project will involve performing archaeological assessments to prevent the degradation of artifacts. Research will be guided by traditional knowledge, Elders and oral histories, when available, and heavily involve community, Elders, youth and Knowledge Keepers.

The Pelly Crossing Selkirk Development Corporation is leading the Selkirk Wind Resource Assessment project through the installation of a Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) system. The initiative includes a feasibility study leading up to the construction of a renewable energy facility, including wind, solar and battery energy storage. Expanding clean energy within the region will have direct benefits for communities, including reduced reliance on diesel, job creation and revenue generation for Selkirk First Nation. 

These projects are delivering important environmental, social and economic benefits that lead to healthier, more sustainable and resilient communities across Yukon and Northern British Columbia. They also build community clean energy capacity and help to avoid the impacts of climate change.

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Ecology

Atlantic Provinces Ready For Aquaculture Growth

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Aquaculture is an important economic driver for rural, coastal and Indigenous communities, and Atlantic Canada is well positioned to increase aquaculture production as global demand for sustainably sourced seafood grows.

That is why the ministers responsible for aquaculture in the Atlantic provinces have agreed to the ongoing development and management of their industries based on common principles. A new memorandum of understanding has been signed by the four ministers, which extends the previous agreement signed in 2008.

“In a time when food security is especially important, it is good to see our aquaculture industry has grown steadily and is poised for continued growth in 2021 based on environmentally responsible, science-based policies and practices,” said Keith Colwell, Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture for Nova Scotia. “Our Atlantic partnership continues to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Cooperation between the provinces and the aquaculture industry has led to improvements in pest management, environmentally sustainable aquaculture methods, aquatic animal health and policies to support the shared use of marine and freshwater resources. It also aims to align regulation and policy between the provinces to make the regulatory requirements easier to understand by industry and the public.

Each province has a comprehensive and robust legislative and regulatory framework to ensure environmental sustainability, economic prosperity and public accountability. The provinces update their legislation and regulations regularly. Nova Scotia revamped its regulatory framework in 2015; New Brunswick received Royal Assent for a new Aquaculture Act in 2019 and is working on the supporting regulations; Newfoundland and Labrador completely revised its aquaculture policy in 2019; and Prince Edward Island has recently drafted a new Aquaculture Act.

The ministers have agreed to continue to use science-based evidence for management decisions, thereby increasing public and investor confidence in the Atlantic Canadian aquaculture industry.

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Ecology

COMING SOON: A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0

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We all want the same thing: a clean and responsible energy future for our children and future generations while continuing to enjoy a high standard of living.

On December 11, 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new climate plan which he claimed will help achieve Canada’s economic and environmental goals.

The proposed plan by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entitled “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” will have an initial investment of $15 billion of taxpayer’s money. It is built on 5 pillars of action:

  1) Making the Places Canadians Live and Gather More Affordable by Cutting Energy Waste

2) Making Clean, Affordable Transportation and Power Available in Every Community

3) Continuing to Ensure Pollution isn’t Free and Households Get More Money Back

4) Building Canada’s Clean Industrial Advantage

5) Embracing the Power of Nature to Support Healthier Families and More Resilient Communities  

In my paper, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy 2.0” I will objectively critique each pillar in the government’s new climate plan and provide alternative solutions to the same issues.

  This is an alternative plan that supports workers, protects lower income earners and creates economic growth while respecting the environment and focusing on the dignity of work.

  This plan abandons virtue-signaling projects and relies on Canadian ingenuity to build our economy and restore Canada’s role of responsible leadership in the world.

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